The five musketeers

  • Friday 18 February 2011

The First Growths


When Decanter assembled the directors of all five of Bordeaux’s first growths for their first-ever joint event in London, the audience was keen. Those who had secured hotly contested tickets to sample the world’s most legendary wines with the people who make them, arrived early. The nervous tension in the masterclass room confirmed once again that these are more than wines; they have become legends, seen as the epitome of winemaking elegance.

But behind the money and glamour of these wines lies centuries of expertise and a pursuit of excellence that started well before the 1855 classification endorsed their achievements. And although they have separate owners and distinct personalities, their fates mirror one another, and one is rarely spoken about without a mention of the others. (Or, as Château Margaux’s Paul Pontallier put it, ‘We have not exactly a friendly rivalry but healthy competition. We know
well that the success of one does not hurt the other.’)

These châteaux have histories that have long been entwined. Decanter’s may have been the first joint event held in the UK, but the five men sitting in London’s Landmark Hotel were continuing a long, though terribly discreet, tradition of working with each other – all the while politely believing their own wine to be the ‘first of the firsts’.

The term ‘premier cru’ gives a good indication of what their shared history means – cru is the past participle of the French word croître, to grow. This means that premier cru (usually known as first growth) can also be translated as ‘first grown’, a reflection of the fact that these properties have someof the oldest histories in Bordeaux – at all five spots
it can be proved that vines have grown since at least the 15th century, and often well before.

Custodians of greatness

Philippe Dhalluin, estate director of Château Mouton Rothschild, explains how history is always present. ‘A first growth is a place where you can make the greatest wine in the world. A wine that can sustain its quality year after year, and across a great number of bottles – it is not a tiny cuvée made only in the greatest vintages. Working at a first growth instils sense of modesty and prudence – the châteaux have been here so long; we are truly only custodians.’

As retail prices have risen for the wines (a quick glance over the past few years will tell you that within two equally esteemed vintages, 2005 and 2009, release prices for Mouton Rothschild went from E360 per bottle to E550; similar rises were seen at all five properties) so has the pressure to deliver. Philippe Bascaules, the technical director of Château Margaux, gives an insight into what that means when he shows me a bottle of the 2008 vintage that has been kept from shipping because of almost imperceptible damage to the back label. ‘There is no margin for error today. Ten years ago perhaps a slight wrinkle in the wine capsule would have passed unnoticed – not now. Our customers expect perfection, and we demand it of ourselves. But we are more able to deliver that standard of perfection than almost any
other estate; we have owners who do not impose financial restraints in the pursuit of excellence. The importance of that can not be overstated.’

Raising the bar

The best-known example of this was when Baron Philippe de Rothschild became director of Mouton, aged just 20, in October 1922, and introduced château bottling. This was also one of the first times when all five châteaux joined together on a shared project. Baron Philippe had taken over an estate (at the time a second growth in the 1855 classification) that had suffered from years of inattention. He was set on raising the status of his wine back up to what it had been in former years – and of course succeeded in 1973 when Mouton was promoted to first-growth status. One of his first steps towards this was to take control of the bottling – noting in his autobiography, Milady Vine, that wines intended for consumption at the château were matured for three years in the cellars at Mouton. ‘Why then… were we shipping the wines we were selling to Bordeaux at the most critical moment of their lives? Anything might become of them in the wine merchant’s sheds. Three years’ maturation in a strange environment, at the very time when we should be responsible for nursing the precious juice? It wasn’t good enough.’

Before putting his plan into action, he ‘first had to put it right with the neighbours: Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour and Lafite’ and together they formed the Club of Five, which met once a month, always at Bordeaux’s Le Chapon Fin restaurant – an institution that remains one of the city’s best eating spots. Together, over the course of these lunches, they officially introduced the idea of château bottling for the 1924 vintage – something that is now taken as standard across Bordeaux, and the world, for any wine concerned about quality and provenance.

Mouton was not in fact the first to do this; it had long been standard to put a part of the wine in bottles at the estate. Lafite had experimented with entire château bottling in the 19th century, and there is a label at Haut-Brion dating from 1850 that demonstrates estate bottling. But Baron Philippe was the first to articulate this to a wider audience, and to suggest that all five estates lead the way in showing their commitment to assuring the quality of their wine from grape to bottle. Today, they goeven further, by individually tracking, engraving and water-marking their bottles and labels to assure authenticity right to the moment of drinking.

Exclusive club

Though rarely discussed, the Club of Five remains an important entity, and has been expanded to the Club of Nine, comprising the leading estates of Bordeaux. If you attended a meeting today, those sitting around the table (no longer at Le Chapon Fin, but at one of the members’ châteaux) will be, alongside the first growths, Château d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus. The discussions – which take place every three months – are centred purely around technical issues, either winemaking or vinegrowing. Far from just an intellectual exercise, the group works alongside Bordeaux’s Institute of Oenology and other leading research centres, co-funding research and exploring key issues that face each of them.

Dhalluin explains the reasoning behind the association: ‘There are often important issues we need to research and deal with quickly and efficiently. And while the initial research is of course intended for our use, results are frequently published in scientific journals and have become part of the wider oenological practices of Bordeaux.’ A recent study into the yeast brettanomyces, for example, was co-funded by the Bordeaux Wine Bureau in 2004, and has become the standard reference work across the region. It suggested methods of improving cellar hygiene and controls during vinification to avoid the associated ‘barnyard’ aromas.

Other research is intended purely for their own use. In the early 2000s, the Five undertook a joint study to understand the terroir at all five first growths, and to understand the difference in the soil types between their first and second wines. Charles Chevallier of Lafite points out that much of the results explained something they knew intuitively anyway. ‘This was a very difficult thing to assess, because we all have different exposition, sun exposure, altitude and various other parameters all over our estates, but it was nevertheless very interesting. Afterwards, I found old papers of Lafite studies from the 1920s and ’30s, with the same findings – that grapes in certain spots weren’t as good as in others. They didn’t know why then. Today we do, but the results are the same.’

Living the dream

Denis Dubourdieu, director of the Bordeaux Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin and a key figure in the Club of Nine alongside his colleague Kees Van Leeuwen, has a clear opinion on the importance of this work: ‘Winemaking is an art, but there must bescientific knowledge that allows the artistic aims to be realised. That is what research allows for. But first growths aren’t the place for experimentation, they are for the results of careful research, so we wait for
several years before putting any results into practice.’

The projects are ongoing – currently focusing on finding successful non-chemical treatments for the vineyard, and on better understanding the threat of oxidation in wines – and will continue to assure that the first growths stay at the forefront of research.

And if all of this has a cost, they are unashamed of it. Frédéric Engerer of Latour, speaking at the Decanter masterclass, made a passionate defence of the high prices of these wines. ‘I wasn’t born into a family of Bordeaux vintners. I was a passionate amateur, from the age of 20 spending all my holidays and weekends visiting estates. When François Pinault the owner of Latour] hired me in 2004, it was a dream, and it is no more or less of a dream today. A lot of my friends say they cannot buy my wine anymore – I’m very aware of that. All of us here are wine lovers, and we care enormously about who buys our wines. But on the other hand, we should be proud to have the top
wines of Bordeaux considered among the most desirable products of France. These wines have existed for 300 years and created a great reputation for quality; high prices are recognition of that work.’

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